The dawn light finally crested the distant mountains, streaming down onto the plains and turning the fields into fool’s gold that rippled in the cool breeze of early summer. From her place in the yard, Nicole Haught blinked at the view, throwing down the stack of fence poles in her arms and stretching out some of the lingering fatigue in her long limbs.
“I’ll never get tired of that sight.” The man to her right smiled, running a grubby hand over his moustache and tipping his old-fashioned hat backwards on his head.
Nicole exhaled, tired eyes unwavering from the fields that led away from the ramshackle Homestead in every direction. “You can say that again, John Henry. If you’d told me in 1917 when I was chained to that factory line that three years on I’d be here, clinging onto the edge of the wild, I’d have called you a damned liar to your face.” Nicole was gratified to see her companion smirk at the curse from the corner of her eye. “But mornings like this make it all worth it.”
“That they do, and I’m grateful for every last one of them.” The farmhand said, a hint of wistfulness in his tone. Nicole nodded, but didn’t probe further. In the time she’d know her hired hand, he’d shown himself to be a man of hidden depths that by all accounts, he made sure remained hidden.
What she did know was that John Henry Holliday had been born in 1881, the same year as the famous shootout that brought his namesake dubious notoriety; such was the furore around the showdown that it spread like wildfire right across the 1500 miles of United States territory to Valdosta, Georgia, where in a fit of unearned pride at the shared surname, the younger Holliday’s parents had named him John Henry. Naturally, before he could even walk, he had been christened ‘Doc’ by everyone but his own mother, and he hated it as only a man with a ridiculous name could. His employers tried to remember to call him ‘John’, or ‘Henry’, or sometimes even ‘Holliday’; anything but ‘Doc’. Nicole would never begrudge a man the chance to redefine himself, and this one had been kinder to her than most she’d known.
Shaking his head as though to remove an unwelcome thought, Doc continued. “Attractive landscapes aside, I should think a great many things make it worth it for you, Ms Haught.” He twinkled, and Nicole rolled her eyes, slapping his bicep with the back of her hand.
“None of that. I boxed your ears once for vamping me, I won’t hesitate to do it again.” She quipped with no malice in her voice. Doc grinned.
“I would not dream of it, m’am. I was merely commenting on the splendour of this fine morning.”
“Sure you were.” Nicole shook her head. Doc had rolled into town 3 months earlier on a snowy February morning, and with her partner’s permission, she’d hired him without a second thought. The war had been over for two years already, and while the boys had been steadily rolling back from the Old World, between the killing fields of Flanders and the ‘flu labour had become a scarce commodity; with just Nicole and Waverly to tend to it through the brutal Alberta winter, the farm had started the slow slump into disrepair, and Nicole was beyond glad to have another pair of hands on board to help. “Enough chat; grab the mallet and get hammering. I want to get the paddock fenced off by sundown if we can manage it.”
“You’re still fetching to get those horses?” Doc asked, bending to pick up the wooden mallet and a bag of iron nails.
Nicole exhaled slowly, pursing her lips. “We barely got through planting this year now that the Farmerettes are gone. I don’t know how we’ll get the harvest in by manpower alone.”
“I did hear tell that the Gardner farm have a Fordson.” The man said mildly. “Could be just what we need.”
Nicole snorted, sticking her thumbs in her braces just above the belt, a habit she’d developed when she was embarrassed. “Well, the Gardners can afford $750 like it was tuppence for a drink. Until we start making a profit, I couldn’t get an auto-plow on hire purchase with the pope himself as a signatory.”
John Henry shrugged. “Maybe when Ms Waverly and Mr Chetri sell their book.”
“Maybe.” Nicole agreed, knowing that she’d never ask Waverly to invest her own hard-earned money into the farm unless it was absolutely unavoidable. They were a partnership in every meaning of the word, but Nicole had her pride.
“Breakfast is ready!” A sweet, lilting voice called from the narrow stoop that ran around the small homestead, as though summoned by Nicole’s thoughts. Doc politely pretended not to notice the way his workmate’s eyes lit up at the sound.
“Coming!” Nicole hollered back, running self-conscious hands over her tightly braided red hair, checking that not a strand was out of place. “Come on, John, I’m half starved.”
With a fond shake of his head, Doc followed his boss towards the house and the petite, feminine looking woman waiting patiently in the doorway, wiping her hands on a lace-frilled apron.
“You were up with the cock crow, weren’t you?” She asked as Nicole mounted the step.
“You know what they say about the early bird, Waves.” The redhead smiled, reaching out to give the younger woman’s hand a squeeze before their farmhand could catch up to them. At the gesture, Waverly smiled warmly, making Nicole’s heart beat a little quicker in her chest.
“I do, and this early bird had best get herself inside before the coffee is stone cold. I’ve made johnny cakes and there’s a scraping of jam left in the jar.” Nicole felt her tummy rumble at the words. She knew that they ate better than most of their neighbours, living off the income from the farm and Waverly’s work as a school mistress in the tiny town of Purgatory, but that didn’t mean they lived lavishly enough that coffee and jam at home weren’t treats rather than staples.
“Good morning to you, Ms Waverly.” Doc said, sweeping his hat from his head expressively in greeting.
“Morning, Henry.” Waverly smiled back, and Nicole’s breath caught in her chest for the moment as she saw afresh the mega-watt smile that had half the county in love with the Earp at one point or another. “You go on in and get yourself some food before this one eats it all up.” Waverly winked and poked her finger into the other woman’s lean stomach.
“Much obliged.” Doc chuckled, heading inside to where the morning meal was laid out on the scarred, unvarnished wood of the kitchen table, leaving the two women alone on the veranda.
“Waverly Earp, you crafty fox.” Nicole grinned, stepping closer so that she could smell the familiar scent of Waverly’s skin and the Life Buoy soap she brought in bulk at the druggist. Waverly bit her lip coquettishly, allowing herself to be pulled into strong arms.
“What can I say, I grab my chances when I see them.” She whispered, enjoying the feeling of her lover’s hands resting warm on her hips. Her fingers rested on Nicole’s chest, over the worn linen of the work-man’s shirt she wore around the farm. “You’ve lost a button again.”
Nicole smiled. “Leave it. No one sees me like this besides you and Doc.”
“Shame.” Waverly murmured, lips so close to her lover’s that she could almost taste the slightly antiseptic tang of her dental cream. “Because you look really handsome in them.”
“Is that so?” Nicole glanced over her shoulder into the dim light of the house, but although she could hear the clattering as Doc helped himself to a plate, they were well hidden from sight. She moved in for a kiss.
“What-ho! Innocent passer by approaching!” A shout came, causing the lovers to spring guiltily apart.
“Jeremy!” Nicole growled, annoyed at the interruption, and relieved that it was only the quirky, dapper scientist who had caught them in an almost compromising position.
“Is it safe?” The man asked, holding his derby hat at face height like a shield.
“Yes, Jer, don’t be so dramatic.” Waverly laughed, idly brushing some dirt from Nicole’s shirt sleeve before turning to face her closest friend with a barely repressed sigh. “There is some breakfast in the kitchen, help yourself.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Jeremy bustled past the two homesteaders without a second’s hesitation, gesturing for Waverly to follow him with his canvas satchel. “I had a breakthrough on the medieval warm period chapter last night. I was talking to the black smith who lives at the bottom of the hill, and she said-“
Nicole let her head fall back in mock exasperation. Waverly laughed, pulling Nicole down to her own height and pressing a quick, firm kiss to her lips. “The work of a historian is never done.”
“Don’t I know it.” Nicole agreed, trailing the pair into the kitchen where Doc was trying to shovel his johnny cakes into his mouth at an alarming speed. He wasn’t quick enough.
“Doc!” Jeremy cried, pulling out the chair next to the older man and all but jumping into it. “You’ll find this interesting.” He continued despite all evidence to the contrary. “What do you know about the linguistic development of the region post the 1300 drought?”
Doc looked momentarily pained. “I will confess not as much as I probably should, but I expect you’re about to rectify that, Mr Chetri.”
Over the table, Nicole and Waverly’s eyes met, sharing an invisible joke as the chatter washed over them, oblivious.
Waverly’s favourite time of day was the 45 minute walk from the small farm that she’d inherited from her father into the town that she’d called home for every day of her 22 years. The road was more of a rutted dirt track for the most part, treacherous in the spring thaw and hot as the sands of Egypt in summer, but come rain or shine, it was a blissful, uninterrupted 45 minutes of solitude with Nicole Haught.
She could remember the first planting season in 1917 when the tall red head had stormed her way into Waverly’s life, along with 2 other women of the Farm Services Corps, come to do their bit for the war effort in the black soil of Alberta; could remember the first morning in June when she’d insisted on walking Waverly to the little town school, and the nervous half-smile that bloomed when Waverly agreed. They’d hardly missed a day since, bar the frozen winter seasons when the school, like the countryside around it, ground to a halt.
They walked in comfortable silence, hands brushing every so often, stealing small glances at each other. It was always a surprise to see Nicole in her street clothes, even after all this time; Waverly was so used to the corduroy pants and comfortable, baggy, button up shirts that the woman wore around the homestead and surrounding farm that seeing Nicole in the old-fashioned ankle length black skirt and starched white blouse she wore in public felt odd. Nicole hated it, which only added to the awkwardness. ‘The shackles of femininity,’ she’d called it once in a fit of melancholy.
“Look.” Nicole said, taking Waverly’s hand and pulling her to the scrub at the side of the road. Waverly, distracted by the feeling of warm hand in her own, took a second to realise what Nicole was pointing at. “It’s a falcon, I think?”
“A hawk.” Waverly answered, using her own finger to trace in the air. “You can tell by the shape of the wings.”
They watched for a few minutes more. “We’ll have to come out here one day with a blanket and you can teach your silly city ladylove your country ways.”
“I’m sure I could think of some country ways you’ve yet to learn, sweetie.” Waverly smiled, giving the back of Nicole’s hand a stroke with her thumb.
Behind them, the roar of a motor car as it struggled down the road sounded suddenly and unexpectedly, and without glancing back the two women continued their journey. Automobiles of all varieties were becoming more and more common in the metropolises that dotted the country like stars in an evening sky; Nicole had described as much one cosy evening over that first harsh November. Most of the hard-working, poverty-ridden families of the Ghost River Triangle however had little enough to get by without things like traction engines and self-propelled harvesters filling their heads with moonshine; hell for the most part, the meagre 160 acre plots allocated under the Dominion Lands Act was hardly enough to afford a mule to do the heavy lifting and keep food on the table at the same time. But for all Waverly’s idle interest in the new-fangled vehicle, she couldn’t bring herself to turn away from Nicole and waste precious moments of their morning, and the car shunted past unnoticed. It slowed briefly, idling in the centre of the lane, and then drove on.
As they neared Main Street (the only street, really, since the fire of ’15 reduced every wooden structure in Purgatory proper to ash and cinder), Waverly found herself smiling the same brittle grimace of a grin that she’d worn since her father had died, waving at passers-by and stopping to greet people in the queue already forming outside the general store.
Purgatory was a one-horse town that had turned into a few-horses town when the turn of the century brought the railway. To Waverly, the limits of her world had always been the Rockies at her back, the town limit at her front, and as far as her imagination could venture between the pages of her books. She’d been happy enough with that, until Nicole.
“Waverly!” A masculine voice called out. At her side, Waverly felt Nicole tense.
“Mr Hardy.” The younger woman smiled, turning to face the handsome, well-built man sauntering towards her, a slight limp in his left leg slowing his progress.
“Waverly, I’ve known you since I was in short trousers, you know you can call me Champ.” Champ smiled at her, a winning smirk that had had girls from Monument to Carstairs falling over themselves in a rush to swoon. It made Waverly think of the card sharks that hung round her aunt’s saloon, and she fought the urge to pull a face.
“You know me, Mr Hardy, I’m all about propriety.” Waverly chuckled awkwardly. Nicole shifted on her feet, drawing herself up to her full height which was an inch or so taller than Champ. “We aren’t children anymore.”
“No, we aren’t.” Champ said, his honest, dim-witted face turning serious. He stepped closer, glancing for an instant at Nicole with the hint of a frown. “I wanted to talk to you on that, again. About my offer to step out one Sunday.”
“Oh.” Waverly swallowed, feeling suddenly very hot in her wool walking suit, the beige fabric heavy despite the mildness of the morning. “I-“
From behind them came the clanging of a brass bell, loud and jarring in the still air. Waverly jumped, staring fearfully over her shoulder to where her employer, Ms Lucado, the serious, stern headmistress of the town’s only school was ringing her handbell ferociously, as if to banish all her bitterness at being dumped in this corner of nowhere with each clang. She was watching Waverly with barely restrained annoyance.
“Gosh, I need to go before I’m late to class.”
“But about this walk-“ Champ insisted, moving as if to grab Waverly’s wrist as she pulled away.
“Another time, Mr Hardy.” Nicole said firmly, linking her arm with her companion’s and pivoting them away. Champ glared before fixing his face into polite acceptance and strolling away down the dusty street.
“You need to be kinder to him. He means no harm.” Waverly chided mildly as they approached the two-room, tin-roofed school building.
“He means to steal you away, if he can.” Nicole responded in a low whisper, trying to keep the jealousy out of her voice.
“I assure you, he can try.” Waverly smiled fondly, giving the red head’s forearm a final squeeze before disappearing through the door. After a moment, Nicole heard the headmistress’s perennial scolding drifting out.
On the walk back to the Homestead, Nicole took a detour, winding her way between the haberdashers and the post office to a squat, red brick building that was substantially larger than any other in town, with the exception of the grandiose hotel up the street. Pushing the door open, she was gratified to see the desk occupied by an older gentleman with a thick painter’s brush moustache and steel grey hair, reading from one of the day-old newspapers that rolled into Purgatory with the morning mail cart. He looked tired as he read, and when he saw the woman standing in front of him tapping her leather clad foot, he visibly deflated.
“Ms Haught.” He said, rising from his chair. The navy blue of his police uniform was spotless, the single-breasted buttons done up to the neck and the collar starched. On the desk at his side sat the standard issue felt Stetson, and Nicole eyed it hungrily for a moment before dragging her attention back to the matter in hand.
“Sherriff Nedley.” She said sweetly. “I wanted to enquire as to whether you’d had chance to review my application yet?”
The man inhaled a fatigued breath. “I have and I’m afraid it’s the same answer as last time. We don’t have positions open for females in the Purgatory Sherriff’s department.”
“They do in Edmonton.” Nicole said with false sweetness.
“What they do in Edmonton is their own business.” The Sherriff said with a look of distaste. Randy Nedley had lived at the foot of the Rocky Mountains for 61 years, and he had only a vague notion of what city people got up to. It involved filth and shamelessness, and women showing off too much leg.
“I’m sure if you put some thought to it, Sherriff, you’d realise that female police officers have a great amount to offer the force. For instance, we both know that not a hundred yards from here there are a great number of women working in…shall we say…the hotel industry who would benefit from the understanding and protection of-“
“Ms Haught, I’ve heard enough!” Nedley almost shrieked, and Nicole thought with quickly tempered amusement that if he had been wearing pearls he would have clutched them. “This is exactly what I’m talking about! It is completely improper to be discussing such things with a lady like yourself! Now unless there was anything else, I will bid you good day.”
“Good day, Ms Haught!” Randy Nedley said firmly. Nicole felt the fight leave her.
“Good day, Sherriff.”
Stepping out into the street once more, Nicole took a deep breath, plastering on a stoic expression and dusting herself off. Then, deciding against returning via the main thoroughfare and having to exchange pleasantries with the few people who gave her the time of day in the town, Nicole turned right and strode along the quieter, less kempt street towards home.
There were few buildings on this stretch, just the Sheriff’s Office and, a little way off, the optimistically named Grand Hotel. It was a tumble down three storey, white-painted building that must have been fancy when it was built to accommodate the influx of rail passengers that never arrived. Now, with the plaster crumbling and the once-delicate cornices chipped and broken, it served as a rest stop for the occasional travelling salesmen and a bordello for the rest of the community. The women who worked there were keen eyed, and largely self-sufficient; they ran their own security, and kept themselves to themselves in a town full of people who would spend all week judging them and all of pay night enjoying their offerings.
“Well if it isn’t the new Sherriff’s deputy, come to clean up the place.” A woman called playfully as Nicole walked by.
“And a good morning to you, Rosita. Not a deputy, and never will be if Randall Nedley has anything to say about it.” Nicole grumped. Rosita wrinkled her nose sympathetically.
“You want to come in and get a whiskey, take the edge of?”
“At 9 in the morning?” Nicole pulled a face. “Maybe another day. I’ve got to get back and make sure Doc isn’t slacking off.”
Rosita laughed. “Sure. You tell that pal of yours that her favourite barmaid is still waiting on that visit. It’s been weeks!”
“I’ll tell her. Maybe we can have a card game one night?” Nicole asked, already backing away.
“You tell her!” Rosita repeated, her eyes crinkling at the corners as she smiled.
Just like Nicole, Rosita had come to Purgatory with the Farm Services Corps, and had been stationed at the Earp homestead. She’d never left Purgatory when her service ended, declaring that she had no where better to be and digging out a niche for herself as a fixture at the Grand Hotel’s never closing bar. Nicole often wondered if she hadn’t stayed just to annoy Bernice “Bunny” Loblaw, Purgatory’s local shame monger, and the friendship between the three women had done nothing to curb the whisperings about the ‘Earp farm spinsters’. The rumours stayed on the right side of proper though, given Waverly’s reputation as a kind, clean-living woman, and for that Nicole thanked whoever above was listening.
As she walked away, Nicole noticed a woman in a bucket hat and a rayon tea dress, the blue fabric hanging loose in the style that Waverly’s magazines insisted was becoming popular in Europe. She was pretty, with her pale skin and black hair hanging loose about her shoulders, but a slight set to the jaw and a glower in the eyes made her appear ill tempered; stand-offish. Nicole smiled anyway as she passed, and the woman scowled in return.
“It is not your day, Haught.” Nicole muttered to herself, and picked up her step, thoughts already on the day’s work ahead.